Director: James Gunn
Writer: James Gunn
Cast: Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Peter Capaldi, Alice Braga
The Suicide Squad may sound like a familiar title. Haven’t we had this movie before? You’re not wrong. The 2016 David Ayer-directed Suicide Squad (sans ‘The’) was a financial success but a critical bomb. Fast forward to 2018 and James Gunn is hired by Warner Bros. after an extremely unfair (but later rectified) firing from Disney/Marvel Studios to helm basically any DCEU property he fancies. After being offered a Superman project and turning it down, he decided on a Suicide Squad reboot, which makes complete sense: after the success of Guardians of the Galaxy (GOTG) Vols. 1 & 2 (not to mention the Scooby-Doo and Avengers movies), Gunn has proven himself an auteur of the superhero-group-dramatic-comedy genre. Has he managed to work his honed magic for the lagging DCEU, or are the Squad just as much a lost cause as many of the DCEU’s projects?
The old Suicide Squad is over. Amanda Waller (Davis), a director who runs Task Force X (the official name of the Suicide Squad), pulls together a new band of miscreants to do her bidding. Starting with Robert DuBois, aka Bloodsport (Elba), she builds a team under his reluctant leadership: Peacemaker (Cena), King Shark (Stallone), Polka-Dot Man (Dastmalchian) and Ratcatcher 2 (Melchior). Waller instructs the Squad to head to the island of Corto Maltese and destroy a Nazi-built compound called Jötunheim, a lab that holds a secret experiment. On the way, they must also rescue the commander of the last mission to Jötunheim, Colonel Rick Flagg (Kinnaman), and OG Squad member Harley Quinn (Robbie), and all without killing each other – or themselves.
Ayer’s 2016 offering had similar markings to Gunn’s Guardians films, including the use of a “quirkier” soundtrack, lots of bright colours and a bunch of misfit characters, but unfortunately it felt just like a counterfeit version of Gunn’s own creation, meaning that although the blueprint was right, the architecture of the piece, right down to the very foundation (the story itself), was off. Granted that the popularity of one Harley Quinn was the biggest (and arguably only) success of the first movie, without a sturdy script it just didn’t hit its mark. A real shame, considering it already used some of DC’s better villains. Gunn has gone on to use fewer mainstream villains but does a much better job in utilising their strengths and emphasising their weaknesses to progress the story, not to mention to give it some decent humour (classic Gunn comedy abounds). It’s much more coherent, however there are a lot of loose ends that are either left completely loose or are tied loosely. Better than Ayer’s writing, but not by a country mile. Hopefully these ends will be either rectified in a sequel or the upcoming Peacemaker series, also helmed by Gunn (Warner Bros. completely milking him for all he’s worth before he becomes completely tied up in Disney/Marvel again). Also, Gunn’s choice of soundtrack music, while suitable for many scenes, is more questionable than his choices for GOTG. Perhaps it’s a way to set a differentiation between his works, but we know he’s capable of better.
The choice of characters for this Squad is also a little questionable. I for one couldn’t always remember their villain names (are you Bloodsport? Or Peacemaker? Or Deadshot? Wait, was he in the other film!? And who’s Blackguard??) and some were stronger choices than others. Bloodsport, Peacemaker and even Polka-Dot Man I could get on board with (Dastmalchian provides some excellent comic timing for questionable jokes). But Ratcatcher 2 and White Shark, not so much. Ratcatcher 2 proves to be quite pivotal for the story, but it’s a weak pivot. The actual villains, those the Suicide Squad are sent to capture and/or kill, are often just the butt of many jokes too, and hard to take seriously. Maybe that’s too much overthinking for a film of this calibre, but Warner Bros. can’t really afford to run on James Gunn-provided humour to save the flailing universe.
At the very least, we have some strong performances that do save much of the movie. While Gunn’s story isn’t perfect, at least his characterisation and character-building is spot-on for the most part. How they managed to get Elba on board has to be some kind of trade secret, but it’s excellent casting. Particularly as he gets to use his natural English accent, which, with the East London twang, gives Bloodshot quite the edge, bringing something quite Luther-esque (Elba’s character on the television show of the same name) to the character. Bloodshot has different sides to him, and we’re able to see them all, thanks to Elba’s ability to say a lot without saying anything at all or saying something but meaning another. On the flipside, we have Robbie back as Harley Quinn, probably one of the biggest audience draws to this movie. She’s just as mad and strangely loveable/hateable as ever, and Robbie’s performance remains consistent despite this being Harley’s third movie outing by three different writers. She’s not the deepest of characters (we sampled that in Birds of Prey though it didn’t really add a lot to the character), but Robbie can at least be trusted to know Harley well enough to give the audience plenty of comedy and what they want from her no matter who is helming the film. Cena also provides some laughs as Peacemaker, but like Ratcatcher 2 his character provides some pivots that aren’t particularly strong (though apparently strong enough to warrant his own upcoming television show). Kinnaman’s Flagg is a little bland, but so he was in Ayer’s Suicide Squad too. He seems to mostly be there for some emotional and moral anchorage, keeping everything from going completely out of control with Squad madness, but it’s like putting a lead bar on the end of a piece of string that’s attached to a brightly coloured balloon that just wants to fly as high as it can. Davis provides a good performance once again as Waller, and like Harley it’s good to have a familiar and consistent character who we agree with one minute and disagree with the next, giving some much-needed complexity to the film. As mentioned, Dastmalchian provides some fun comedic moments as Polka-Dot Man, giving his strange character a reason for being. And we have Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2 (her father, played briefly by Taika Waititi, was the original Ratcatcher), who just seemed out of place most of the time. Her ability to command rats is bizarre (and considering the state of most of these characters, that’s saying a lot) and, in a similar way to Kinnaman, the performance is rather unremarkable. Stallone’s voice work for White Shark is like this: his involvement is on par with that of Vin Diesel’s as Groot in GOTG, but the performance is not. It’s not that it’s bad exactly, it’s just… unmeasurable. There’s not really anything to it. We enjoy Diesel’s performance because there’s a nuance to it and we have an emotional connection to the character. There’s nothing like that with White Shark. He’s a little humourous at times, but, like Ratcatcher 2, he lifts right out. We also have cameos from Michael Rooker, Jai Courtney, Pete Davidson and Nathan Fillion that provide some excitement that is short-lived but fun. Sean Gunn’s strange “cameo” as Weasel (in the manner of Rocket from GOTG) in particular is hilarious when it probably shouldn’t be (stick around for the mid-credits scene – laughs aplenty).
It’s probably about time the Squad was put to bed. They previously succeeded financially where they failed critically, and they’ve now succeeded critically where they’ve struggled financially (not really the movie’s fault, mostly down to the pandemic, unfortunately). It seems clear that Jared Leto’s not-so-acclaimed Joker from Ayer’s Suicide Squad won’t be reprised anywhere (especially not after Joaquin Phoenix’s lauded performance in Todd Phillips’ 2019 hit), and we may yet see more of Harley Quinn due to her popularity (though even that may be waning by now), but as audiences I feel we’re running out of patience for Warner Bros. overall continued failure to do right by DC characters. Hiring Gunn was a good choice, no two ways about it, but even his excellence as a filmmaker wasn’t enough to save a DCEU movie. It will be interesting to see just why Gunn wanted to take Peacemaker into his own show (due January 2022), but I wouldn’t expect much from it, as blasphemous as that feels to say against Gunn. We can cross our fingers that things could get better for the DCEU, but unlike Superman’s ‘S’, I don’t see much in the way of hope.